HDTV Stumbles in Japan

Japan's highly touted next-generation television sets are winning few buyers. Promoters of the technology hope stronger programming will turn the tide.

WHY is a statue of Don Quixote, with his lance at the ready, standing in the world's only studio for live broadcasts of high-definition television, or HDTV?

Critics might say Don Quixote is an apt image for Japan's long-held dream to promote this new television technology, an effort so far as successful as the Don's tilting at windmills.

But in fact, the statue is a backdrop for a noontime talk show, called "Hi-Talk," one of many HDTV shows beamed from the country's semiofficial station NHK, the Japan Broadcasting Corporation. The statue serves as a visual reminder for viewers to think of Spain, and thus to think of this summer's Olympics Games in Barcelona.

And therein lies the connection: NHK officials hope that HDTV broadcasts of this mega-sports event can stimulate a much-delayed stampede by Japanese consumers to buy high-definition television sets.

"The games in Barcelona will be a turning point for HDTV," says Tsutomu Chiba, director of the HDTV division in NHK.

After two decades of technical research, years of experimental programming, and almost four months of broadcasting for eight hours a day to Japan, high-definition television is faltering in its promise to become a whole new medium by the early 1990s. One big reason, say NHK officials, is a lack of extraordinary programming.

"We haven't been able to convince people yet of the special characteristics of HDTV," says NHK chairman Mikio Kawaguchi. So far only a few hundred HDTV sets have been sold or made available for viewing in Japan.

With the aid of two ministries and 11 high-tech firms, NHK has led the effort by Japan to invent and promote a new type of television that offers denser resolution, a wider screen, and richer clarity than normal sets. But the effort has run into a number of hurdles.

The viewing quality of normal sets, for one thing, has greatly improved. Also, United States researchers have come up with an alternative, digital-based technology that may surpass NHK's so-called Hi-Vision system. And to prevent Japan from re-conquering their TV markets, both the US and the European Community have put up regulatory delays to any HDTV broadcasts as they decide which standard to accept.

But most of all, HDTV has lacked compelling programs that would make consumers appreciate the visual differences from conventional TV enough to overcome their sticker shock over the high prices of HDTV sets.

"We've been caught in a catch-22 between software and prices for hardware," Mr. Chiba says.

"In the past, our shows used a lot of long shots of beauty in nature on the myth that this was the best way to use HDTV. But public interest was not very high," he says. One show had a fox running back and forth across a field. Another show gave various views of a lake. Chiba says the need is for "human details - the drama, the close-up of faces, the action."

Japanese high-tech firms may have miscalculated that HDTV's software would closely follow the advance of hardware. But it has not been so, and billions of yen in research are at stake, along with a potential market for new television sets of over $50 billion.

In January, Sharp Corporation made a dramatic announcement by offering an HDTV set priced at one million yen, or $7,700, far below other manufacturers' prices. Now, says Chiba, "the ball is back in our court."

HDTV would need to penetrate at least 1 percent of Japanese households - 400,000 of 40 million - before a manufacturer could afford the minimum run of production to assure profitability, says Dr. Joseph Nishimura, general manager for HDTV development at Sanyo Electric Company.

In the 1960s, color television was a "must-have" product with obvious attraction over black-and-white TV. Many Japanese firms assumed HDTV would follow a similar pattern. "Now we're not so sure," Dr. Nishimura says.

At present, HDTV is finding its way into small market niches, such as reproduction of art in museums or the creation of special effects in Hollywood movies. But, says Chiba, "We've looked back in history at what successfully promoted sales of television and we decided it was sports events, especially the Olympics."

When Japan began eight hours of satellite HDTV broadcasting in November, up from one hour a day that began in 1989, the government helped organize the Hi-Vision Promotion Association, which divided up programming: half to be made by NHK, and half by Japan's commercial stations.

NHK has a core team of about 60 people, most under 30 years old, to work on HDTV programs. They have unusual freedom to come up with ideas that exploit the technology's special qualities.

Gold colors, for instance, show up well on HDTV. But camera scans of a scene must be slow to avoid making viewers dizzy. Studios sets must be perfect in detail because faults are easily spotted.

With so much air time to fill, NHK resorts to covering a lot of sporting events and music concerts, which require fewer resources. HDTV cameras are heavy and expensive. The number of crew and the time required are triple those of normal TV.

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